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Wrongful Conviction: Professor Scott Vollum Takes an In-Depth Look at the Death Penalty

Scott Vollum  
UMD Professor Scott Vollum  
Damon Thibodeaux  
Damon Thibodeaux was wrongfully convicted and spent 15 years on Louisiana's death row.  
Juan Melendez  

Juan Melendez was on death row for 17 years in Florida before being exonerated.


While living in Huntsville, Texas, Scott Vollum confronted the death penalty for the first time. His office was located only two blocks away from the execution site.

"We had Black Panthers marching with guns and the Ku Klux Klan coming face to face right in front of the death house," said Vollum. "The Klan had little kids in little Klan outfits. It was weird.”

In Minnesota, the death penalty isn't legal. People know what it is and that it exists, but it doesn’t have a big impact. For students at UMD, especially those in Vollum’s class, that changes.

This spring, Vollum, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, is hosting three events to help UMD students connect with the death penalty on a personal level. “It is so important for students to be exposed to the real people involved with the death penalty,” Vollum said. The events are free and open to the public, and the speakers will also visit Vollum’s class.

On Wed., March 26, at 7:30 pm in Bohannon 90, Vollum is hosting Damon Thibodeaux, a man who was on death row in Louisiana for 15 years before he was exonerated by DNA evidence. Thibodeaux and his lawyer will speak about the wrongful conviction and the death penalty. Thibodeaux was exonerated in 2012, and he has since moved to Minnesota, where his lawyers reside.

On Wed., April 9 at 7 pm in Bohannon 90, Juan Melendez, an exoneree from Florida who spent 17 years on death row, will speak. On Tues., April 22, at 7 pm in Bohannon 90, Cathy Crino, whose sister was murdered, will speak.

“I was a death penalty agnostic," said Vollum. "It was a non-issue. I grew up in Minnesota, went to school in Wisconsin, and got my masters in Iowa. None of these states have the death penalty.” He moved to Huntsville, Tex., to pursue his Ph.D. in criminal justice, and he focused his research on why people commit crimes and criminal theory.

In Texas, his viewpoint changed. Hunstville has eight prisons and one death house, where the condemned are executed. It has the highest rate of executions in the country.

“Once I saw how the culture is immersed in the death penalty, I became more interested," Vollum said. "Seeing the protests – it was in my face.”

Vollum’s doctoral advisor played a part in Vollum’s new-found interest. The advisor was a capital punishment abolitionist known as "the man with the candle." He held a vigil for every execution, standing on the corner. Sometimes he was alone; sometimes he was surrounded by thousands of people.

Vollum changed. “Everything that is wrong with the criminal justice system is magnified when you look at the death penalty," said Vollum. "Wrongful conviction becomes this magnified issue. The inequality and discrimination that are part of it are magnified as well.” Vollum said the death penalty is an "interesting cultural artifact that the United States seems to be hanging on to." The U.S. is the last western country to allow it.

Since 1976, 144 people have been fully exonerated from death row. In addition, some were removed from death row, but the state refused to exonerate them, leaving a felony on their record. “Right now, 32 states legally have the death penalty and 18 do not," said Vollum. "If eight more abolish it, then a majority of the states will have, and the Supreme Court may follow suit. I don’t think that will happen any time soon. Eight states is a lot."

A capital punishment case, which is decided on by a capital jury, is split into two parts.. The guilt phase of the trial, and the sentencing phase. This means that the jury will first decide guilt, and then decide on the death penalty.

To be on this kind of jury, a juror must be "death qualified". This means that potential jurors are asked two questions. First, they are asked if they believe in the death penalty. If the potential juror says no, they cannot be on the capital jury because they would not sentence this person to death, no matter what. If the potential juror says yes, they are asked, "If this person is found guilty, could you impose a death sentence?" If the answer is yes, the person can be on a capital jury.

"This means that capital juries are predisposed to the idea of guilt; we are already putting this idea in their heads, and it is proven that this leads to more wrongful convictions.” Vollum said.

Once convicted, statistics show that a person will spend an average of 10 years on death row before they are executed. The reason timeframe is so lengthy is because when the Supreme Court brought back the death penalty in 1976, it could only be constitutional if there were extremely sufficient, procedural safeguards to make sure that it’s done equitably, that it’s fair, and innocent people aren’t being executed.

“In the words of the Supreme Court, 'death is different.' It deserves this higher scrutiny because you can’t take it back," Vollum said. "You can remove someone from prison if we find out they’re innocent, but if you kill somebody… the worst thing the state can do is wrongfully kill its own citizens. That’s the fear.”

To avoid this, many safeguards are put in place. They’ll bring in aggravating factors to make it only for the worst of the worst. They will allow mitigating factors, which allow the defense attorney to say this person deserves mercy, and they should get life in prison instead. Each person sentenced to death is also given the chance to appeal.

Vollum is currently teaching a class called Death Penalty. He doesn’t try to sway students with his personal opinions, instead, he presents facts and individual cases and lets students decide for themselves.

Students in Vollum’s class spend the semester interacting with a person who is connected to the death penalty. They can write to someone who is on death row. They can opt to speak to an attorney, activist, correctional officer, police officer, politician, clergy, or the families of murder victims. Every student also has to make a visual presentation about last statement of someone who was executed.

In his book Last Words and the Death Penalty: Voices of the Condemned and their Co-Victims, Vollum examined both last statements, and the statements made by murder co-victims for whom the offender was executed.

His second book, The Death Penalty: Constitutional Issues, Commentaries and Case Briefs, which Vollum co-authored with Rolando V. Del Carmen, brings together major death penalty cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court and legal issues related to the death penalty. The third edition to this book will be out in April.



Scott Vollum's last statement book The Death Penalty: Constitutional Issues, Commentaries, and Case Briefs  
Vollum's first book takes an in depth look at the last statements of prisoners, as well as statements from murder co-victims.
The newest edition of The Death Penalty: Constitutional Issues, Commentairs, and Case Briefs will be out in April.



Written by Brilynn Janckila, March 2014.


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